09/12/2014, 00.00
ISLAM - CAMEROON
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Poverty, fanaticism and a desire for revenge drive Boko Haram in Cameroon

by Piero Gheddo
Islamic terrorism is gaining ground not only in Nigeria. Young Cameroonians are leaving their families for a holy war. Westerners, but also local politicians are their target. Peaceful coexistence between faiths and ethnic groups is at risk.

Milan (AsiaNews) - The following account is how a foreign observer, who has lived for years in northern Cameroon, explains to the country's authorities Boko Haram's growing appeal among young northern Cameroonians. It shows how important, if not decisive, oil-rich Gulf states and emirates are in funding Islamic extremism, which are embodied in a number of organisations and associations.

In Italy, it is hard to understand why so many young people join Islamic guerrillas and terror groups. Unlike neighbouring Nigeria, northern Cameroon, an area that is home to a substantial Muslim minority living side by side with an animist and Christian majority, had never experienced any extremist and violent version of Islam until two or three years ago. When acts of terrorism and violence occurred in our midst, we blamed fanatical Nigerians who, unhappy about the situation in their country, came to Cameroon to make money from ransoming Westerners. How wrong we were!

At present, everyone can see that northern Cameroonians are joining Boko Haram, a movement that is not an army under a single hierarchy but a collection of several groups that adhere to an extremist vision of Islam whilst maintaining total decisional and organisational autonomy. This explains why terrorist actions within Nigeria or in the border with Cameroon vary from one another.

We can all see that Boko Haram groups (and there are many) have adjusted to government crackdown in Cameroon, Nigeria and Chad, after recent consultations in Paris. First noticeable change is that Islamists no longer target only Westerners. Influential local political officials and business people are now fair game. In Kolofata, Mayo Sava Department, terrorists attacked the home of Deputy Prime Minister Amadou Ali. They abducted his wife Agnes, a Christian from southern Cameroon, who is still being held hostage. This has caused quite a stir across the country because the attackers acted in broad daylight, driving pick-ups normally used by the police, wearing the Cameroon uniforms army.

Second change is that the Cameroonians now realised that Boko Haram terrorism is not Nigerian, but is home grown, backed by young Cameroonians and deeply rooted in the social fabric of the country. Many also find it convenient to believe that it is mainly a problem in the country's North and Far North, but the authorities now fear that it has now spread, albeit in latent form, to the whole country, including the capital Yaoundé.

Lastly, the third change is even scarier for Cameroonian authorities and ordinary Cameroonians because young northerners are being recruited for Islam's "holy war". Unofficially, civil and military authorities believe that more than 500 young men have already "left" the country's northern-most region. Another 200 are said to have left the Adamawa plateau region to join Boko Haram. Some of them have called home and told their families that they left to join a more and powerful radical Islam.

Since young Muslim men are the main target group for recruitment, this raises the question of how long different ethnic groups and religions can still live in peaceful coexistence. Christians are beginning to fear that they will become the persecuted victims of a holy war that will drive them from their villages. The threat of a scenario akin to what is happening in the Mideast and sub-Saharan Africa hangs over a region that has always been a paragon of coexistence and cooperation between different ethnic groups and religions.

One of Boko Haram's ideological foundations is the rejection of everything that does not conform to a radically interpreted Islamic law, driving its followers to set up states or sultanates for only true believers in the one true faith of Islam.

This extremist view can certainly be appealing to young people who are unhappy with the current management of public affairs, where corruption and cronyism create privileges for a few, and leave the majority of the population, especially the young, with no prospects for employment and a better life.

The lack of opportunities has led many young people to join those who offer a revolution in the name of the "faith in the true Islam", which comes with regular financial benefits. Recruits can earn up to 180,000 CFA francs (€ 300, US$ 400), which corresponds to the monthly salary of a school principal, or a career government official. Considering that a well-paid mason gets 60,000 francs (one third what Boko Haram offers), the economic appeal of joining is easy to see.

Many young men may opt for this kind of offer to feed their family and have it protected by the Islamist group. But this comes at a price since there is no turning back. Anyone who does try can expect to have his throat cut to set an example for others.

What is more, learning to handle weapons provides an additional psychological motivation. It gives young men a sense of power, something they only experienced negatively in encounters with the police and the gendarmerie. With weapons in one's hands comes the illusion of standing up to "Western oppressors". This changes one's perspective on life, especially if one's religious ideology promises eternal salvation.

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